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Truth: The First Casualty of Chimp War

Truth is the first casualty of war, even chimp war.

Truth is the first casualty of war, even chimp war.

It's amazing to see how eagerly the mainstream media trumpets any and all research findings that lend the slightest support to the narrative in which human warfare is an integral, ancient part of our primate past. From a psychological perspective, it's tempting to conclude that the media frenzy that predictably breaks out every time scientists report evidence of chimpanzee warfare is due to an unconscious desire to deflect shame felt over human warfare. "It's not our fault," the thinking seems to go, "It's human nature. Look at chimps! They're our closest primate cousins!"

Blaming human war on chimpanzees is the pseudo-scientific equivalent of saying, "The devil made me do it!" If the essence of evil is man's "fallen nature," as most Christian religions maintain, and if war really is an expression of something embedded so deeply in us that it goes back to the last ancestor we shared with chimps five million years ago, then yeah, maybe war really is the devil's doing.

Sorry to ruin a perfectly good rationalization, but that dog won't hunt.

First off, chimps aren't "our closest primate cousin," though you'll need a sharp eye to find any mention of our other, equally intimately related cousin, the bonobo in most of these "news" stories. Like a crazy relative who lives in a shed out back, bonobos tend to get mentioned in passing-if at all-in these sweeping declarations about the ancient primate roots of war. There are plenty of reasons self-respecting journalists might want to avoid talking about bonobos (their penchant for mutual masturbation, their unapologetic homosexuality and incest, a general sense of hippie-like shamelessness pervading bonobo social life), but the biggest inconvenience is the utter absence of any Viking-like behavior ever observed among bonobos. Bonobos never rape or pillage. No war. No murder. No infanticide.

Given the fact that we shared that common ancestor five million years ago with both chimps and bonobos, you might think discussion of bonobos' anti-war ethos would get half the space in these articles. You'd be wrong about that.

In Nicolas Wade's 1,260-word New York Times article ("When Chimpanzees Go on the Warpath," June 21st) for example, bonobos are mentioned in passing just once, in a single, subtly misleading sentence in the twelfth paragraph. (Bonobos are described as "the chimps' peaceful cousin" while chimps themselves are described as having a joint ancestor with humans, thus leading the average reader to mistakenly conclude the human genome shares more with the chimps' than with the bonobos'.) But Wade knows his stuff and even this micro-mention is more than most articles on the primate origins of war manage. In general, journalists seem unwilling to risk muddying their compelling (if untrue) narrative with so much as a word on bonobos.

Also generally left unmentioned in most of these articles is whether, and to what extent, human presence may be influencing the chimps' behavior. In the Kibale reserve where these warring chimps live for example, poaching appears to be a serious problem, with one of the chimps having been speared by humans recently. Habitat destruction is an on-going crisis all over Africa-including in supposedly protected areas. Park rangers are no match for the AK-47-toting armies protecting and profiting from illegal logging and bushmeat trade.

Research into chimpanzee behavior is vitally important, and the scientists carrying out these investigations are clearly not responsible for the misuse of their findings by journalists. But the public should beware of this false myth of the origins of human war based upon a misleading view of our primate past.

Christopher Ryan is co-author (with Cacilda Jethá, M.D.) of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, available June 29th.

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